Now playing: Wings (1927) | Bleader

Now playing: Wings (1927)


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While New York City’s Film Forum just wrapped up an ambitious William Wellman retrospective, tomorrow afternoon Chicagoans can catch the director’s most honored film—the WWI classic Wings (1927), which won the first Academy Award for Best Picture—on the big screen of the Music Box. As Dave Kehr wrote in a recent New York Times column, the movie’s “a grand entertainment in the something-for-everyone tradition that has been lost in the more recent era of niche marketing.” It’s also a personal work for its director, a hard-living former hockey champ who had joined the French Air Force in WWI just for kicks (that’s how Wellman describes it, anyway, in his 1974 autobiography A Short Time for Insanity, which is as entertaining as any one of his films).

Wellman’s life story can be more entertaining than the films he actually made. According to him, his career in Hollywood began when he crashed a garden party as Douglas Fairbanks’s estate by flying an Air Force plane onto his lawn (he’d met Fairbanks in passing some years before, who had told him to stop by if he was ever in Hollywood). He was only 29—and with only a handful of fast and cheap productions under his belt—when he was assigned to the mega-production Wings. This was another glorious fluke: Wellman was the only director at Paramount with any Air Force experience, and the studio wanted realism. In Short Time for Insanity (which is out of print, though the Harold Washington Library has a copy), Wellman relates how he overcame his fear of the mammoth responsibility by playing up his macho, devil-may-care persona. This attitude would come to define his subsequent films. Wellman’s was an uneven career, but at its best (e.g., the six films included in TCM’s DVD box set Forbidden Hollywood Volume 3) it includes some of the punchiest, most gregarious workaday filmmaking that Hollywood ever produced.

Wings is as good an introduction to Wellman as any, though I’m still crossing my fingers for that Film Forum series to make its way here.